Midday Taste Treat

For those of you who accuse me of trying to elevate beer to haute status all the time – you know who you are! – I give you a pre-lunch snack combination that should please one and all.

Salted, white corn tortilla chips + salsa verde + Bohemian-style pilsner

Nothing fancy here, just mild spice with nice fruitiness blending beautifully with salt and floral hoppiness. Better, I’ll bet, than a good 80% of the nacho platters served in North American bars.

I like to make my own salsas, but I’m also a big fan of the Hernandez Salsa Verde, which I’m using here. All natural with nothing in it but tomatillos, onions, Serrano peppers, salt and coriander. The beer I’m drinking is a local one: King Pilsner.

Beer & Food in Portland, Oregon

(A quick gander at today’s stats page showed a significant number of visitors arriving from this story at CNN. So for them, I’ll delay my discourse on gin for still one more day and present instead a story I wrote a few years back for Nation’s Restaurant News on a great beer city, Portland, Oregon.)

You hear a lot about beer and food pairing these days, usually in the context of a brewery-sponsored tasting or perhaps the occasional beer dinner. But the question which remains is: Is anyone doing anything about it?

Well, no, not really.

As any frequent diner who is fond of grain as well as grape will attest, there is an unquestionable tendency among restaurateurs to offer measly beer selections as almost second thought “add-ons” to exhaustive wine cellars. Ask for the wine list at your favorite restaurant and you’ll be handed a page, a pamphlet or a book. Ask for the beer list and your request will all-too-often be met by blank stares, or a poorly recited list of a half-dozen or fewer choices.

Exceptions do exist, of course – the Belgian-oriented Monk’s Café in Philadelphia, Francophile destination Fourquet Fourchette in Montreal, San Francisco’s beer-and-tapas brewpub, The Thirsty Bear, and Toronto’s beerbistro, the beer cuisine restaurant in which I serve as junior partner and beer consultant, all spring to mind – but in general, beer gets short shrift at the North American dinner table.

Except in Portland, Oregon.

An unabashed beer town, Portland supports more breweries than does any other urban area in North America, both per capita and in total, with 34 operating within the metro limits at last count. Equally, the Rose City is a foodie paradise, boasting no end of smart restaurants serving up the regional bounty in innovative form, from local heirloom tomatoes in a Calabrese salad to tapas of fresh northwest seafood. And if the customer so desires, most of it may be accompanied by beer.

Greg Higgins of Higgins Restaurant is a pioneer in both the promotion of local produce and the partnering of food and beer, offering at his twelve year old restaurant both a stellar wine list thick with Pacific Northwest possibilities and a beer selection ranging from eight taps (plus one British-style handpump) to an impressive array of local and international beers. In the latter, beer steward Warren Steenson affords special consideration to Belgian ales, they being among the most food-friendly of beers.

Noting that there are some foods that simple go better with beer, Higgins singles out cheese as just one example, casting his gaze upon the humble white cheddar. “I can’t think of any wine that complements a piece of cheddar as well as ale does,” he notes, adding that he doesn’t understand why people would want to limit themselves to strictly wine or beer at the table, when you can have so much fun with both.

Troll the restaurants of Portland and you will find, time and again, that such limitations are rarely necessary in this food-obsessed city. No matter if you dine at the four diamond London Grill in Portland’s grande dame hotel, The Benson, the funky Le Bistro Montage, known for its late hours and macaroni and cheese variations, or the venerable Jake’s Famous Crawfish, over a century old and still going strong, you can rest assured that beer as well as wine will be available to complement your food.

Even downtown’s Stumptown Coffee, arguably the best of the city’s ubiquitous caffeination stations, offers a quartet of imported drafts and sundry bottled beers from German, British and Belgian brewers for those who prefer their brew cold and quenching to hot and steaming.

So whether it’s a grilled Black Angus rib eye accompanied by a glass of rich and roasty porter, macaroni spiked with jalapenos and served alongside a pint of fruity, hoppy India pale ale or local summer squash fritters complemented by a bottle of spiced Belgian ale, Portland has the beer and food pairing that everyone else is still just talking about.

GBBD (Great British Beer Dinner)

After days of dining pretty much exclusively in pubs – and eating quite well, I might add – Jay Brooks and I decided to treat ourselves to a dinner at Fergus “Nose to Tail Eating” Henderson’s St. John Restaurant, located mere steps from our Smithfield area digs. It was a wide decision.

After teasing my already engaged appetite with a glass of Champagne, I dined on roasted marrow bones with parsley salad and wonderful grey sea salt, followed by Middlewhite pork loin with lentils, potatoes and greens. To accompany, I had a pint of the Meantime London Stout and a glass of Domain Boudau Cotes du Roussillon. We finished the night with a plate of delicious but poorly identified cheeses and a split bottle of Meantime London Porter.

All in all, it was a delicious beer-wine-swine experience, hampered only by rather dreadful service, which quite frankly seemed to start with my audacious ordering of beer to go with my marrow bones, rather than a nice, big, profitable bottle of wine.

It was truly refreshing to visit a quality restaurant that also offered a fine selection of ales, but why the double standard for those who choose to partake of them?

(More on the other GBB, the Great British Beer Festival, later.)

Bloody Tarted Up Food! Phooey!!

Jeffrey “Stonch” Bell was feeling lazy today, so the only thing he posted on his blog was the day’s chalkboard menu at his pub. And just take a look at it! “Chicken Liver Pate.” Oh, well, la-de-dah. “Chargrilled Chicken Breast with Salad.” What’s the matter? Good old boiled or fried chicken not good enough for you? No, we need to chargrill it. Fancy, fancy!

It only gets worse from there. More of that precious chargrilling on the pork chop, which is then all fussied up with a poncy green pepper sauce. Hardly stuff that belongs in a pub, says I. And what’s with the “French Fries”? English chips too pedestrian, Stonch? And don’t get me started on the “Stuffed Tomato with Ratatouille” or the “Fishcakes with Fennel.” How simply precious!!

When are bar and pub managers like Mr. Bell going to learn? Beer drinkers, especially craft beer drinkers, don’t want quality fare served at a reasonable price. We want crap food like frozen and refried fish and chips, soggy nachos layered with orange cheese and canned jalapeño peppers and desiccated burgers served on stale, store-bought rolls.

Well, don’t we?

Telling It Like It Was

I promised a couple of days ago to offer more on the incredible presentation on aroma given by Dr. Rachel Herz as part of Francesco Lafranconi’s sensory seminar at Tales of the Cocktail, entitled “Tell It Like It Is.” So here are just a few of the interesting points made by Dr. Herz, one of the leading lights in the study of how we perceive aroma:

  • To start with, Dr. Herz spoke a bit about the sense of taste, offering up first the fallacy of the sweet at the front of the tongue, bitter at the back and sour and salty on the sides school of taste bud perception, and then adding the interesting tidbit that humans even have taste buds in our throats.
  • Dr. Herz also surprised me by noting that the sense of taste does not degrade with age, but that the sense of smell does.
  • Ever notice how when you’re stuffed up things don’t taste as good as they usually do? That’s because aroma is directly connected to taste even after the food or drink we’re tasting is in the mouth! This is called retronasal olfaction.
  • The sense of smell is the only one of our senses to have a direct link to the part of the brain responsible for emotion and memory. This is why so many aromas can trigger strong evocations of the past.
  • Unlike taste, odour is not something that is “hardwired” from birth, meaning that we learn what smells are good and bad through associative learning and emotion.
  • It is possible to manipulate the way people perceive aromas by forcing associations on them. This gets a bit complicated, but basically means that by exposing two groups of people to the same smell, where one group is experiencing unpleasantness and the other a positive or neutral emotion, you can make the former group automatically dislike that smell, even when they are exposed to it weeks later, while the latter group will form positive associations with the same aroma.

That’s it for now. I have on order Dr. Herz’s book, Scent of Desire, and if the above was of interest to you, I strongly suggest that you do the same. If nothing else, it should give you some insight as to why you like some beers but may have a problem with other.



Beer & Food Pairing Hatred

There has been some real animosity towards the marriage of beer and food in the beer blogging world of late, or at least in one segment of it, and I must admit that I just don’t get it. At issue is a recent article by New York Times writer Eric Asimov about wishing that the quality of food in NYC beer joints would keep pace with the quality of the beer. I think it’s a quite reasoned commentary, and if you’ve ever suffered through an overcooked, previously frozen burger on a Wonder Bread bun while enjoying a pint of fine pale ale or pilsner, I’m guessing you’ll think the same.

So why the hatred? Why is it that, for some people, the mere thought of pairing beer and food in a mutually beneficial way is tantamount to treason towards the ways and traditions of good beer? Frankly, I just don’t get it.

Here’s what I think. If I’m down at the pub or corner bar with some friends enjoying a few pints of quality ale or lager and I get hungry, I’d like to be able to satisfy my hunger with a decent morsel of food, whether a moist and flavourful sausage, a plate of good nachos or a burger that is less than a week old. And if I’m at a fine dining restaurant, I wouldn’t mind the option of a quality stout to enjoy alongside my plate of Malpeque oysters or a sweet and fruity Belgian style golden ale to complement my foie gras au torchon.

In neither case do I feel I’d be doing a disservice to beer. On the contrary, I think that either instance would be elevating the taste of the beers in question by pairing them with quality, compatible foods.

Note that nowhere am I suggesting that beer should only go with the foie and oysters, or that crap nachos are okay for eating with beer because, after all, it’s only beer. That, I think, would be doing a disservice to beer, and a pretty great one, at that.

Honestly, I can’t see why anyone with tastebuds would think otherwise.

A 1939 New York “Beefsteak”

A big thank you to John Bryan at Boulevard Brewing in Kansas City for sending along the link to this article from the archives of The New Yorker. It’s about the huge steak and ale parties thrown back in the first half of the twentieth century, both pre- and post-Prohibition, known as “beefsteaks.”

There is plenty of good reading in its 4,000+ words, including such great lines as this one, lamenting the effect that the presence of women at the formerly male-only parties: “…but women do not esteem a glutton, and at a contemporary beefsteak it is unusual for a man to do away with more than six pounds of meat and thirty glasses of beer.” And this: “Geez,” said a man. “These steaks are like peanuts. Eat one, and you can’t stop. Have another.”

But most interesting of all, as John pointed out in his original email to me, is the complete absence of wine at these affairs. Red meat, apparently, went with beer and only beer, and fairly large quantities of it, at that. In fact, another effect that the presence of women apparently had on the institution of the beefsteak was the addition of not cabernets or pinots to the beverage mix, but “Manhattan cocktails.”

“Invitations” and “Guests”

As a drinks writer, I receive a fair number of invitations to things like bar and restaurant openings, product launches and tastings. As a beverage enthusiast, on the other hand, I receive a fair number of “invitations,” like the one I just got from a food magazine to which I subscribe and from which I receive regular email updates.

The difference is that when I’m invited to an event, I’m not expected to bring along my wallet, only my palate and notebook. But when I’m “invited” to something, there’s usually a price tag attached, like the $20 I am expected to pay should I wish to attend the wine and cheese tasting I’ve just been “invited” to attend.

To me, this is right up there with the modern propensity of restaurants to refer to their patrons as “guests.” If I ask someone to be my guest, it means that if there is a charge, I’m going to pick it up, just as when I invite people to my home for dinner, I do not prepare a bill for them at the end of their meal. I dare say that the organizations that “invite” me to their events and the restaurants that consider me to be their “guest” think otherwise.

Is T&L That Myopic or Is America That Boring?

Being a person who travels quite a bit and enjoys a meal out from time to time, I was particularly interested in the press release that landed in my inbox this morning. It came (via Nation’s Restaurant News) from Condé Nast, the US lifestyle magazine publisher, and touted the new list of the “50 Best New U.S. Restaurants,” as decreed by Travel + Leisure magazine.

And so a-link hopping I went, straight to not a list, but a slide show of T&L’s top picks. It starts out well, with four picks in Chicago, which I was happy to see because I’ll be spending a few days in the Windy City next month. But then things become, well, a bit repetitive. The next nine choices all reside in New York City, while the following eight are to be found in San Francisco, the next four in Houston and the succeeding seven in Seattle.

In total, that amounts to a remarkable 32 of the top 50 new eateries in the United States being situated in one of only five cities! And it gets worse: Eliminate Houston and Chicago and over half of the list hails from one of a mere three cities!

Now, I understand that each of these three or five cities is known as an eating destination – with the possible exception of Houston, about which I’ve heard little buzz over the past year or two – and I respect that fact that, in our current recessionary times, restaurant openings are probably down quite a bit. But this still strikes me as a pretty dramatic misrepresentation of the culinary excitiment that is no doubt still busting out all over the States, regardless of the tanking economy. New Orleans? One restaurant. Philadelphia? Ditto. Same for Miami and L.A., Vegas and Boston, Dallas and Portland, Oregon.

All of which is to say that I think T&L should perhaps consider expanding its contributors list beyond the major east, west, Midwest and southern metropolises before it decides to declare its next “Best of…” list for America.